Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Garden

As many of my friends like to hear about my Paris garden, I’ve decided to write about what it takes to maintain a garden in Montmartre, tiny though it may be.

Ground zero
Life in Paris is many things.  One thing it usually is not is a private garden.
First of all, a thorough sweeping
     Which is why I'm very lucky to have found this small patch in Montmartre.  It's well hidden behind two sets of doors and a weathered white gate. The garden shields me from the rest of the building and the building in return shields the garden from the noise of the street.
Unhappy herb garden
     It’s its own little world, peopled only by me, invited guests and a merle chanteur, a singing blackbird like the one in the Beatles song.

The climate of the City of Light is milder than it should be at this latitude (the same as Labrador).  It’s semi-oceanic, the Atlantic being just 125 miles down the Seine River, so although Paris does have four seasons, plants can still over-winter outdoors.  Occasionally I’ll fall in love with a climatically unsuitable plant, such as the luxuriant white Stephanotis floribunda that I planted in the ground, not knowing it was a semi-tropical jasmine from Madagascar.  It froze to death in the harshest winter Paris had known in decades.  But all in all, the survival rate among my perennials is good.
Pierre de Ronsard
     Winding gracefully up the trellis are different types of ivy.  There were also two clematis, but one was uprooted by someone while I was gone.  I don’t know who would do that, or why, but it left the trellis pretty bare, so I found a wonderful pink climbing rosebush, a Pierre de Ronsard, named after the 16th century French poet who wrote “Mignonne, allons voir si la rose / Qui ce matin avait déclose...”, his warning to the young Cassandre that roses, like her youth, last but a moment.  (My medieval French professor, Guy Mermier, would be so proud I remembered that!)  Pierre is now settling in near a dark pink peony in the corner and I hope they find there’s enough sun and water to want to stick around.  Maybe I should name her Cassandre.
     On the less-shaded north perimeter of the garden proper, there are three different roses given to me or my family over the years.  They don’t bear too many flowers but they keep their green leaves all year round, and that’s welcome in the greyness of winter.  They share space with hyacinths that grow back every spring from their bulbs, which I’ve planted over the years after they finish gracing my interior with their flowers and fragrance.  There’s also a fuchsia that replaced the one that perished in The Great Freeze of 20012-13, and I was glad to see new sprouts - something I always hope for.  Edging all this are many campanula, with their tiny lavender bells.  Those that get the most sun give the most flowers, but even in the shade their leaves last year-round.
     All this needs tending when I arrive, but it’s there waiting faithfully in any season.

Hanging garden
That leaves, however, the annuals.  Which, as their name implies, have to be replaced annually.
     Last year, two of the neighborhood florists closed, and the year before that The Major Player, Monceau Fleurs, was replaced by a pastry shop.  Which still left two florists.  And then a new one opened.  They all carry the usual suspects: geraniums, petunias, carnations, etc.  The farthest shop, run by a charming Vietnamese couple, is almost down on the boulevard that once was the Montmartre-Paris border.  They have a much wider selection than the others - and a bit cheaper - so that’s my destination of choice.  I make numerous trips back up the hill, balancing boxes of flowers in both hands.  (Out of curiosity, I did some research and discovered the difference in altitude between the flower shop and my garden is about 85 meters according to GPS.  That works out to 275 feet.  Put that into stories with a 10 ft ceiling and it’s the equivalent of walking up about 27 flights.)
   Most of the flowers I bring back from that farthest shop are impatiens.  That’s because of the three-story-tall cherry laurel tree just outside my window.  Cherry laurels are not supposed to grow that tall, but no one told her.  She casts fairly dense shade over two-thirds of the in-ground garden (as opposed to the planters) so impatiens does the trick.  Because of the shade, I choose white flowers, with a few dark pink for an accent.   It takes four dozen to cover this part of the garden, which is ruled over by my rooster - symbol of France - although this one was made in Africa from scrap metal artistically twisted and shaped into iron feathers.  (There are other animals that small children love to hunt for - a frog, a turtle, a hedgehog, a chicken and a songbird - all brought back from trips to far places.)
     In addition to this in-ground section, there are planters on the patio along all three walls of the garden, as well as six more hanging from my wall of windows.  In them are some perennials, such as ivy, but every year I add a few carnations or marigolds for a touch of color, and last fall’s pansies have reflowered to add yet another shade to the palette.  In prevision of the rest of the summer, I seeded some nasturtiums to spill down the front of the boxes, and blue morning glory seeds in the back that sprouted within the week and are already plotting to climb up the windows.
     But for anything a bit more exotic, you need to cart yourself across town to Truffaut Nurseries.  The trip entails two different Métro lines, but with a good book that goes by fast.  The problem comes in bringing home the booty.
     This time, I went there to buy some hostas for the Very Dark Place at the foot of the cherry laurel where a maidenhair fern seems to enjoy it, and also a blueberry bush to keep the blackberry company.  Unfortunately for me, I’m rarely in Paris when the berries appear, but that may be one reason the merle chanteur has elected residence in our courtyard. One year he, or a relative, stole my cherry tomatoes just before they were ripe, leaving behind only the inedible green stem for me.
     Juggling my purchases, I set off across the bridge toward the Métro station.  Just then a free taxi pulled up and I flagged him down.  It’s a fair distance to my house and the driver and I got to talking.  Turns out he’s a gardener and was hoping, as I crossed in front of his cab, that I would motion to him.  We traded gardening secrets, him telling me about stables near his house in the far suburbs where he goes for horse manure... and did I want any.  (Strange things happen in Paris taxis!)
Herb garden by the door
As for my herbs, most of them are in colorful ceramic pots that could be taken indoors when it gets cold, but I never do.  I leave them out so my friends on other floors can snip off some for their cooking when I’m not around.  And even when I am, the herbs grow faster than I can use them up.
Thyme in flower
   Some of the herbs are old friends.  The bay leaf plant, for example, has grown tall and lanky over the years, reaching upward for the light.  To keep him company, I’ve planted some flowing oregano at his base.  I don’t think they’ll cross-pollinate and create a new breed of herb, but you never know once your back is turned. There are also two rosemary plants that haven’t achieved bush-hood but have valiantly faced several winters far from their Mediterranean homeland without too much complaining.  The verbena is also frail but undaunted over two years.  The mint - which usually is one of the plagues of Egypt if not contained - has been very discreet, so I planted a brand new one among its tiny vestiges, just to cheer it up.
     And then there are the herbs that need to be replaced every year.  Basil, of course - without which I wouldn’t know how to cook.  And parsley, which is a bit of a finicky, whining plant, but again necessary for French cooking.  Not to mention thyme, also a Mediterranean plant but less robust than its compatriot, rosemary.  This year I’ve planted some chive in a bigger planter, hoping it’ll stay around or pop back up in the spring, like my chive does in Michigan.  Same with the sage, but maybe I should have put it in a bigger pot if I want it to persevere.
     Anyway, time will tell.  Every spring I have to refresh the entire tableau.  But as my grandfather used to say, it keeps me out of the pool hall.

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